Interview with Jean Van Roy of Brasserie Cantillon

It took a rough path to stay what they were. Jean van Roy – fighter, beer whisperer, icon – reflects, thanks and is excited about his beers finally being used for cooking. One of the world’s most renowned and in demand breweries in the world: Cantillon.

Which of your beers would you have served beerhunter Michael Jackson?

I think our Lambic. Actually, I would have done a tasting with Michael Jackson and other people on Lambic, because it is our basebeer. Lambic means everything for a Lambic brewery, because with that Lambic we are producing all the Gueuze and fruit beers. It is the only beer that we brew, except for the Iris. But Iris is only about five percent of our production.
But maybe an old one, because it’s more delicate, more elegant and a beer with more character.

How did your father teach you how to blend?

You don’t teach it. It’s tasting and talking about the type of beer, why you would use it, why not. It’s a conversation you have every day. As you don’t use the same type of Lambic, you don’t use the same type of blend for a Gueuze or for a fruit beer, for example.
And I’m not blending the same way today compared to how my father did it twenty years ago, because the beers are different. The recipe is the same, the material is the same and we are taking exactly the same time to produce the beer. But we are working with new wooden barrels. New of course means second hand wooden barrels, but used for the first time here. And that is the big difference.
In the 70s and 80s, it was very, very difficult to sell Lambic or Gueuze. And a lot of Lambic breweries had troubles or even disappeared from the market. After World War II, there were more than 50 breweries and blenders in Brussels, and I’m not including the surrounding buitenland. They all disappeared except for Cantillon. I think the last one disappeared at the end of the 70s. So they disappeared at a speed of more than one a year.
Back then, we had no money to buy new barrels, so we used the ones we had until the very end of the barrel’s life. Old barrels give something else. Further, we are now only working with round bungs, so sealing the barrel is easier. Before we used square bungs and had more contact with the air.
For twenty years now, we are paying more attention to fermentation. We top the barrel only once, when the fermentation is over. We top it and keep the beer for one year, to several years, whatever. Thirty years ago we didn’t top the barrels but simply seal closed them for one, two, three years.
Our blends of today have the taste of barrels that we are using for the first time. When you use a wine barrel or cognac barrel for the first time, the Lambic extracts from the wood what it contained previously. That did not happen thirty years ago, simply because we didn’t have money to buy new barrels and the ones we used were very old. Today we have to include this new way to blend into the classic blend. And that is why I changed the blend compared to the blend my father made twenty years ago and that he showed me twenty years ago.
Therefore all in all, the result is different. We continue to produce traditional Lambic, but the beers are not so hard and not so acidic. I think I am producing beer a bit more soft and delicate.

Are you teaching blending – or having conversations about blending – with your son Florian?

From time to time, yes. Florian is working at the brewery, since December because he began studying at the University, but that was the wrong choice [laughs]. When he had his break in December, I told him that he wont stay home, we need someone. So he came working at the brewery.
He didn’t chose himself to work at the brewery, it was more of a – maybe not an obligation, but… he’s working very well and is happy at what he’s working at the brewery. But I don’t feel the passion. I think to produce lambic, you need two things: you need love and you need passion. Traditional Lambic, if you’re producing fake Lambic, that’s another story.
As a traditional Lambic brewer you need to feel the brewery, you need to feel the beer. The beer, as I always say, and you is a partnership. I don’t control the product. I don’t control the fermentation, which is why I don’t like to be called “master brewer”, because I am not a master; I don’t dominate my beer.
A Lambic brewery is asking a lot more from you than a classic brewery. I don’t want to say that the brewery needs me, but… and when winter and the brewing season arrives, I don’t go away, and if I do, only for a short time. During that period we are brewing every week and from time to time even during the weekends.
I don’t feel Florian has the passion for those things today. He has to decide for the future. Sometimes he comes to the brewery with me for the blend. But as I said, it’s not teaching, it’s tasting.

Saying your son might not take over the brewery gives many people a heart-attack, because this could mean that you’ll not have anybody taking over the brewery. Is that an actual risk?

I don’t think so. I have another son. I have five nephews.

Do you see the passion in any of them?

No. [laughs]
But they are very young. Florian is the oldest; he’s 19 and will be 20 next month. It’s a bit young to decide about your future. And I’m only 48. I’m here for the next twenty years. And within twenty years, we will find someone from the family or not to take over the brewery.

Do you think there will be a turn-around and there will be more Lambic producers or blenders in Brussels again?

Not in Brussels, simply because this type of production needs a huge space. If you want to start a Lambic production, even a Lambic blender, buying or even renting would be too expensive – unless the person has a lot of money. Therefore, I think that if someone wants to start spontaneous fermentation beers, it will be outside of Brussels, where the prices are a bit cheaper than in the city.
The big advantage in a city is that you are close to a lot of things and tourists can come visit you, if you accept to be open like we do. But I think we are the only brewery in Belgium that is open for individual people. But at the same time, being in the city also has its disadvantages. There are traffic jams, the streets are small, so the deliveries with a big truck is always a problem, there’s no parking. Considering this, it is very difficult to run a brewery in the city.
And we are totally crazy, because the street where the other building is on, is even smaller [laughs].

When you mentioned before that barrels have a lifespan. What’s the typical lifespan of a barrel?

It depends on the type of barrels. When we receive a used barrel that is new for us, we bought it after five or six uses. We keep them here for fifteen to twenty years. So all in all they are in use for twenty to twenty five years.

You mentioned some differences between yours and your fathers beers and how, for example, getting new barrels made a difference. But were there any techniques that you were able to improve?

Technique, not really. Because as I told you, we haven’t changed anything. The only change was the use of new barrels and the way to control the fermentation a bit better. Apart from that, we didn’t change anything, because it is impossible to do that.
If you want to continue to defend traditional Lambic, I think you have to continue to brew it in the same way. Our ancestors, I suppose, were not stupid people. And if they decided to brew such a beer in this way, if they decided to use, for example, that specific kind of cherries for the kriek, then it was because this type of production, with this type of material was the best. Never change a winning team. And today, traditional Lambic is a winning team.
It actually has always been a winning team, even thirty years ago, even if no one was asking for such a beer. It still was a winning team, because Lambic is the most amazing beer in the world.

Who produces the wort for the blenders?

Mainly Lindemans and Boon. We are working with one blender, Tilquin. We are producing two brews a year. He’s asking for more, but the period to produce Lambic is very short. The season begins at the end of October/early November and lasts until the end of March/beginning of April. The weather right now with close to zero temperatures during the night, is ideal for producing Lambic. Outside of that season it is impossible to produce Lambic.

What exactly would happen if you’d produce a wort in June?

It has a very bad smell: Sulphur, cheesy.
That is not just a risk, it’s a certitude that it would not be a beer with yeast fermentation, but with a bacterial fermentation. We’ve done it in 2011. From mid-March, we’ve had temperatures of more than 20 degrees during the day and ten to twelve degrees during the night. The two last brews I made in early April, I lost about 80 percent of the beer.

Considering all the hype, the myth, the popularity, Cantillon is definitely part of that winning team. What do you think about this attention you get?

From time to time I feel like I’m dreaming. We are coming from zero. In the 70s, 80s, even the early 90s, Cantillon was considered to producing vinegar. They considered Lambic too acidic, considered it nonsense to produce with fresh fruits. In the 70s and 80s a fruit beer was something sweet, made with syrup or essence and not something sour made with fresh fruits.
So when you are coming from zero and when you arrive at the top, it’s a bit difficult to understand. Even today, when we know that we have a lot of success. We know that people are fighting for a Cantillon bottle everywhere in the world. Last week we had, for the first time, Chinese beer geeks here at the brewery. They were very disappointed that Cantillon didn’t export to China.
It’s very difficult to explain how it was to see that first man with a Cantillon tattoo. I couldn’t believe it. And I’m very proud. Not for me, not for the brewery, but for the beer. If we fought, it was to survive, to preserve the brewery, but first and foremost to preserve and promote a type of beer: Lambic. And we did. Lambic is alive today. And that is thanks to a few people, including my parents.

That a brewery like De Garde is doing only spontaneous fermented beers would not have happened without your family.

I don’t think so. When we see the number of people today that are learning Lambic and the number of people that want to reproduce spontaneous fermentation beers, or want to use a koelship in their beer production, it’s amazing.
I have no problem if they are doing spontaneous fermentation and not call it Lambic. Because Lambic is produced in Brussels and its surrounding area. 300 years ago when all the beers were spontaneous fermentation, only one was called Lambic. Now it should be the same.
Allagash for example, they are producing an amazing spontaneous fermented beer called Coolship. I gave a lot of advice and information to Jason. I don’t have any problem with sharing information. The more real spontaneous fermentation we find on the market, of quality beers, the better that is for Lambic.

You do a Zwanze beer every year. What do you do different for those beers?

My father also did some experiments, twenty to thirty years ago, like the Iris. It was brewed the first time in 1998 to celebrate the twentieth birthday of the Brussels Museum of the Gueuze. My father also came up with Fou Foune, after he met François Daronnat, the apricot producer. My father also made the first lambic with wine grapes: Saint Lamvinus.
We are producing the Zwanze and it’s a new beer every year. Some of those beers are produced regularly now, like the Mamouche. That’s the Lambic maturing with elder flowers. When I discover a new taste, a new type of flavor from my beer, it’s difficult to say “I only produce it once”. That is why I want to continue to produce, as a regular beer, the rhubarb beer, which was the Zwanze beer in 2008 and 2012. It’s very fine and it’s different. It’s not a fruit beer, it’s not a Lambic, it’s something in between. It’s the favorite beer of my wife, so that’s also important [smiles].
Now I try to discover my beer through other ways. I try to improve, not techniques, but create new blends, or learn how my beer reacts in different ways. I like to experiments, like producing Lambic wort with 20 to 25 plato instead of the usual 12 to 12.5, which is the classic gravity for a Lambic wort. When I produce the wort with a higher gravity, but the exact same way and with the exact same technique, it’s still going to be a Lambic. But it’s exciting to see how the beer reacts when there’s more sugar in the wort. And I learn about my beer, when I am working in this way.

When do you start thinking about or even working on a Zwanze beer? Doesn’t seem like you can do it two months before the event.

No, no. We are doing some experiments right now [i.e. April – ed.] for the Zwanze 2016. The first two experiments that I’ve done for the Zwanze 2016 were not a success. The original idea was to produce a Lambic and age it in an amphora. We are going to re-do it, but with a Lambic that’s already matured in wooden barrels and has enough body. When you age your beer in an amphora, they are giving so much flavor, so much taste, that you need a strong beer to counter that. In my first experiment, I made it with wort. It was like putting a baby in the middle of a hailstorm.
But I don’t have enough space here, so we’ll do it in the other building. But in the other building I don’t have any Lambic strong enough, so the new amphora Lambic will be, I hope, the Zwanze beer of 2017.
Now the Zwanze 2016, I think, will be a beer we used to produce in the 80s and 90s: the old framboise Cantillon. When we used raspberries from Belgium, the taste was nice, but the color was not so beautiful. It was a bit old rose. To get a bit more color to the beer, we blended the raspberry beer with 25 percent of cherry Lambic and a bit of vanilla. Vanilla and raspberries are working very well together. The goal is to reproduce a beer in the same way, but with the raspberries coming from Serbia, with a lot of color – as much color as in the kriek.
The idea is to blend the beer with 25 percent blueberry Lambic, so with the beer Blåbær we are making for Jeppe and Olbutikken. So 25 percent blueberry, 75 raspberry and vanilla. And of course real vanilla. I am now experimenting with vanilla and Lambic to have an idea of how much vanilla I need to use for 2000 liters. The experiments are going well and I like the taste of it.

You mentioned the other building you expanded to and in other interviews you said that it would be around 2016/2017 that people will see a change because of it. How will we experience the effect of this expansion?

The beer is ready now. The goal was to use in this season about five to ten percent of the beer we’ve made in the season 2014/2015. But the real increase will begin in September.
But there will not suddenly be Cantillon everywhere. Have a look at the beer board: All the beers are sold out. Right now I don’t have enough beer for myself to sell at the brewery. We had have to reduce, year by year, the limit people are allowed to buy here. It was ten boxes three years ago, eight two years ago, five last year and now the limit people are allowed to buy here are three boxes.
So the first production increase will just be for selling here at the bottle shop and to serve at the bar. The bar is more and more successful. There are people, mainly foreigners, that are coming to Brussels for two or three days and they visit the breweries every day of their stay in order to drink a maximum amount of Cantillon beers. First of all because those beers don’t exist outside of the brewery, and even if they can find those beers in their country, they are way more expensive than they are here.
And second, I want to focus the increase on the city of Brussels. I receive more and more demand from the people in Brussels, from beer shops, beer bars, but also wine bars. Lambic is so close to wine that we have a lot of success with wine drinkers. And finally, restaurants. Finally, finally great restaurants discovered that Lambic could be very interesting to use in cooking, because it is not a bitter beer. When you are cooking with beer, what makes it difficult, is the bitterness. So in a recipe with white wine you can replace that with a Lambic or Geueze. And more and more great chefs are beginning to use our beers.
So, only if we have enough beer for the brewery and Brussels, we can think about increasing shipments to foreign countries. But the first one would be, probably, the US. Because in comparison to Italy for example, or France, I don’t sell and send a lot of beer to the US market.

You mentioned now several times that it is foreigners or tourists that come visit you. Do you notice that more and more people from Belgium get more interested in Lambic?

It begins. We receive inquiries for new customers every day and I think 50 percent are coming from Belgium. But it’s new. Belgium was probably the last country to react to the beer success and the Lambic success.
For six years we haven’t added a new customer, because we couldn’t increase the production. All our old customers receive the same volume as the previous years. We are only taking, as new customers, great restaurants, because they have two advantages: they present the beer in a different way and the image of the product is normally very good in a restaurant. And restaurants don’t ask for a lot of beer.
We also don’t take new customers, because friendship is very, very important to me. I am always ready to do more for the people that were customers twenty years ago, people that were supporting traditional Lambic and our brewery, when it was very difficult to send and sell beers in other countries. I’m thinking of Sten of Akkurat in Sweden. Olli Sarmaja in Finland. Konishi, our importer in Japan. Shelton Brothers in the US. When times were difficult, these people were present.
So when someone in Brussels comes and asks for beer, I am always tempted to ask him where he was twenty years ago. Were you selling sweet, fake Lambic? And only now that we are a success, you are interested?
I will always recognize those who were there for us in the 80s and 90s. I want to thank them and always want to do more for them. More than for new customers, even if they are motivated, even if I feel the passion for them. It’s about friendship.

On that great sentiment, let’s wrap this up with our final question: Five beers you’d suggest people should drink before they die.

A beer from my very good friends at Brasserie De La Senne: Zinnebier. That beer is simple, drinkable. But when I say simple, it is simple in a very good way. It is a beer you enjoy without questions.
For another Belgium beer: Dupont for me is one of the best Belgium breweries. It is a very dangerous beer, because it is very easy to drink, but it is a bit higher in alcohol: Avec les Bons Voeux. Marvelous. If you let it age a bit, it’s a beautiful beer.
From Italy, BeerBrugna from LoverBeer. Walter was here a lot of times in the 90s and he learned a lot about Cantillon.
Setembre from my friend Carlos at Masia Agullons. It’s their top fermentation beer mixed with my Lambic. It is a beer so fine.
While I don’t want to pick a Cantillon beer, I want to pick a spontaneous fermented one: Coolship from Allagash. Which is very well made. It’s not a Lambic, but it’s a real spontaneous fermentation beer. You really feel that the beer is alive.
But picking just five beers is difficult. There are so many good beers all over the world today. Too many.

This interview took place on 29 April 2016 at the brewery.

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